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Spierig Bros: rifles, genre and Helen Mirren

Twins Peter and Michael Spierig are set to release their highest profile project to date with Winchester: a real-life ghost story that Hollywood heavyweights have been trying for years to get the rights to.

Imagine a woman, one of the world’s wealthiest, convinced that she’s being haunted by the ghosts of those killed by the brand of rifle responsible for her vast fortune.

First her daughter dies, then her husband, then her father-in-law, leaving her an heiress with roughly $500 million to her name by today’s standards.

What does one do with such resources? Funnel them into a mansion, which is constantly under construction as a way to fool and confuse the malevolent spirits with staircases to nowhere, dead-end hallways and secret corridors.

If that was the breakdown of a fictional story, you might say there are one or two elements too many.

What makes it extraordinary is that it’s all true – and the subject of one of history’s most interesting and enduring ghost stories.

So interesting, that some of Hollywood’s biggest names have been fighting to make a movie about Winchester rifle heiress Sarah Winchester and her ‘mystery mansion’ for decades, but with no success.

Enter Brisbane-based filmmakers and twins, Peter and Michael Spierig, who had a take that finally seemed to get the rights holders “very excited”.

“It has been a movie where the rights have been really tricky,” said Peter, speaking on the phone from Los Angeles, where he was putting the finishing touches on Winchester’s score (yes, he’s also a composer).

“There have been a number of filmmakers who have tried over the years including people like Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro and M. Night Shyamalan.

“It has a history of people trying to get it done.”

The Spieirg Brothers, as it turns out, were the right people for the job after making a name for themselves internationally with Australian genre films that have covered everything from futuristic vampires in Daybreakers to gender-bending time travel in Predestination.

Born in Germany and immigrating to Australia with their parents, the pair have been “obsessed” with movies since their teens growing up in Queensland in the 80s and 90s.

Naturally that led to a career in filmmaking, with commercials their entry point, before they pooled their life savings in 2003 to make Undead: a zombie movie set in a small fishing village.

Serving in writing, producing, directing, editing, scoring and even visual effects roles “out of necessity”, Undead acted as a bridge to bigger and better things for the brothers.

In 2009 their vision of a vampire dystopia was realised in Daybreakers, shot largely in their backyard of South East Queensland, before they pushed boundaries even further with Predestination in 2014, filmed in Melbourne.

With an attempt to develop a Dark Crystal reboot around 2010 and a purely directorial gig on Saw franchise entry Jigsaw last year, unbeknownst to the Spierigs everything was slowly leading them in the direction of Winchester.

Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke star in <em>Winchester</em> Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke star in Winchester

“It wasn’t something that Michael and I were all that familiar with until Sony brought it to our attention,” Peter said.

Once they did learn about it, the siblings began a deep dive as they both became obsessed with the larger-than-life true story and had to “read everything about it”.

It’s not surprising, given it’s a tale that has fascinated people for over a century, including Academy Award-winner Dame Helen Mirren.

She takes on the integral part of Sarah Winchester in the film, someone who the Spierig Brothers say was “a woman ahead of her time”.

“We fell in love with the character of Sarah Winchester, as did Helen,” said Michael, speaking over the phone from his home in Brisbane.

“I think the thing that drew Helen to her was not just the notion that she was haunted by the spirits of people killed at the hands of the Winchester rifle.

“She was an inventor. She was very wealthy. She invented things that no one was doing at that time.

“She was very into technology and the first one to have a telephone in that area.

“Architecturally as well, women weren’t architects back then and the fact that she had all these resources and all this money, well, she could build endlessly and fulfill her wildest dreams with that.”

Peter added: “Sarah Winchester has such an amazing story to tell and the fact we get to do that through Helen Mirren is crazy.”

In a time where women were struggling for everything from equal footing in society to the right to vote, Winchester’s fortune afforded her freedoms that the Spierigs insist made her “such a pioneer”.

Although her real ‘mystery mansion’ is still standing today in San Jose, California, and was the setting for some on-location shoots, the majority of the movie was filmed in Victoria and at the Docklands Studios in Melbourne.

The shoot for the Screen Australia-funded production lasted three months, from March 2017 through to the end of May, and saw the Spierigs reunite with frequent collaborators such as Sarah Snook (who previously had a star-making turn in Predestination), their longtime production designer Matthew Puttland, cinematographer Ben Nott (their DOP on every movie they’ve made since Daybreakers), and costume designer Wendy Cork, to name a few.

“We like to work with a lot of people we’ve worked with before, like Sarah Snook again, and we got to do that on Winchester,” said Michael.

“And Jason Clarke, who’s such an amazing Aussie actor, Angus Sampson, Eamon Farren … it’s just such a great cast, so it was a wonderful experience.”

With Winchester set to open globally in February, and the added profile of not only its stars but the experienced producers and studio, the anticipation is building.

Yet as genre die-hards and lovers of all things spooky, the focus for the Spierigs is frightening their audience.

“It’s gonna be a really scary, really creepy, haunted house movie,” said Peter, with a supportive chuckle from Michael and a resolute “definitely”.

Winchester releases in Australian cinemas on 22 February. It is distributed by StudioCanal.